SAN DIEGO - Responding to fresh allegations of sexual impropriety, Arnold Schwarzenegger confessed yesterday that he had sometimes "behaved badly" toward women and said he was "deeply sorry" for his actions.
The movie star, who has been leading in the recall contest to replace Gov. Gray Davis, was reacting to a published report in which six women said he had groped them.
According to the women, the incidents spanned a period from the mid-1970s until 2000.
Schwarzenegger's apology, which stunned a crowd of supporters at the kickoff of his four-day bus tour of the state, suddenly injected new uncertainty into Tuesday's election.
The Republican had been considered almost a prohibitive favorite heading into the closing days of the contest.
Schwarzenegger dismissed much of the report, in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, as untrue and denounced it as "trash politics" aimed at tearing down his candidacy.
But, he went on, "I have to tell you, that I always say, that wherever there is smoke, there is fire. ... And what I want to say to you is that, yes, I have behaved badly sometimes."
He said he had been "on rowdy movie sets" and "done things that were not right, which I thought then was playful, but now I recognize that I have offended people.
"And those people that I have offended, I want to say to them, I am deeply sorry about that, and I apologize, because this is not what I'm trying to do."
Schwarzenegger added that he would be a "champion for women" if elected governor and hoped voters "will give me the chance to prove it."
Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who has fallen behind Schwarzenegger in the polls, denounced the actor's behavior and suggested that he might be guilty of criminal misbehavior.
Bustamante said the allegations "are very serious, and they should be resolved," noting that the state criminal code considers such unwanted touching a misdemeanor sexual battery.
His advisers said Schwarzenegger wanted to respond immediately to the latest allegations, so they would not deflect attention from his efforts to close out the campaign on a positive note.
Duf Sundheim, the California Republican chairman who was called in by the campaign to help with damage control, expressed hope that it would be only a "one-day story."
But the issue seems unlikely to disappear before next week's recall election. Interviews with voters at two Schwarzenegger rallies indicated that at least some people, especially women, would now rethink their support for the candidate.
"It's going to put some question marks on his character," said Meagan Shortridge, 19, a student at Vanguard University in Southern California. "I'm not sure I'm totally supportive of him yet."
Donna Benck, an airport baggage screener, said the latest revelations might prompt her to vote for someone else.
"I'd like to hear what he has to say," she said, as she waited for Schwarzenegger to arrive at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa for a midday rally.
But the actor made no mention of the issue in his four-minute speech, which came several hours after he delivered his apology at the San Diego Convention Center.
Other Schwarzenegger backers brushed off the incident.
"Let's see - six women in 30 years. That's one every five years," said Pam Ford, 38, an artist from San Diego. "I bet he's been groped himself a lot more times than that."
Others also said they thought voters would discount the allegations, despite Schwarzenegger's admission, because they had arisen so late in the campaign and thus seemed politically motivated.
That idea was repeated by warm-up speakers at the outdoor rally in Costa Mesa before Schwarzenegger's "California Comeback Express" bus rolled up.
Republican Rep. David Dreier told the crowd that the Times article was not just an attack on Schwarzenegger but also "an attack on every one of us that wants to take back California."
'Going to get ugly'
A Schwarzenegger spokesman, Todd Harris, said, "Any time you run a campaign against Gray Davis, you know that it's going to get ugly, and you know that it will get personal. ... We're not trying to suggest that the Davis people are behind [the article], and we're not saying that they're not."
In the article, based on interviews with six women who accused the actor of improperly touching them, the newspaper said it did not learn about any of the women from Schwarzenegger's rivals in the race.
Davis, without directly addressing the issue of Schwarzenegger's behavior, called it "a matter between the voters and their conscience." He said he had had no involvement in the Times article.
Recent polls show that state voters are prepared to dump the governor in the recall election.
Praise of Hitler?
Another crisis loomed for the campaign last night after ABC News reported that Schwarzenegger, while making the documentary Pumping Iron in 1975, was quoted as saying, "I admired Hitler, for instance, because he came from being a little man with almost no formal education up to power. I admire him for being such a good public speaker and what he did with it."
The network said the quotes come from an unpublished book proposal that includes a verbatim transcript of a 1975 interview, in which Schwarzenegger said he wanted to have an experience "like Hitler in the Nuremberg stadium. And have all those people scream at you and just being total agreement whatever you say."
Schwarzenegger told ABC he could not recall those statements and said, "I despise everything Hitler stood for."
According to the Los Angeles Times article, the alleged improper sexual behavior took place on movie sets, in studio offices and at the gym Schwarzenegger frequented as a bodybuilder. Three of the women said Schwarzenegger had grabbed their breasts.
Another said he had groped her in a hotel elevator and tried to remove her bathing suit. A fifth said he reached under her skirt and grabbed her buttocks, and the sixth said he pulled her onto his lap and asked her a lewd question.
"Did he rape me? No," the Times quoted one unnamed woman, who said Schwarzenegger touched her breast in a 1980 incident, as saying. "Did he humiliate me? You bet he did."
The most recent alleged incident took place in December 2000, when, according to a British TV personality, Anna Richardson, the actor touched her breast after she went to his London hotel suite to interview him during the promotional tour for the movie, The Sixth Day.
The issue of Schwarzenegger's alleged misbehavior toward women has hovered over his campaign from the outset.
His public appearances have attracted groups of female protesters, who accuse him of being a "groper." One of his opponents in the recall race, Arianna Huffington, who has since dropped out, raised the issue of his mistreatment of women during his only televised debate appearance.
In August, when he announced his candidacy on the Tonight Show, he tried to inoculate himself against the issue by saying he knew that he would be accused of "womanizing."
The allegations first surfaced more than two years ago, not long after Schwarzenegger hinted at an interest in seeking statewide office. The governor's top strategist sent reporters copies of a March 2001 Premiere magazine article that accused the actor of crude behavior toward women on movie sets.
At the time, Schwarzenegger denied the allegations, and there were vague threats, made on his behalf, that he might take legal action.
Among those quoted in the Premiere article was Richardson, the British TV host who was quoted in yesterday's Times article.
Since his campaign began, Schwarzenegger has been forced to respond to the topic when a 1977 Oui magazine interview surfaced. In it, he boasted about participating in group sex at a Gold's Gym in Venice, Calif.
After first seeming to acknowledge that the report was accurate - while brushing it off as a relic of his "crazy and outrageous" past, before he had any idea of running for governor - he denied that he recalled the interview.
Among those quoted in the Times article was E. Laine Stockton, then the 19-year-old wife of a fellow bodybuilder who has since become one of Schwarzenegger's most outspoken critics.
She said Schwarzenegger reached under her T-shirt and touched her breast in the 1975 incident, also at Gold's Gym. He "may have meant it in playfulness," but she didn't take it that way, she told the paper.
The four other women in the Times article asked that their identities not be revealed. Three work in Hollywood and fear damage to their careers, and the fourth fears retaliation against her husband's business, the paper said.
Polls have shown that men are more likely than women to support Schwarzenegger, though by a smaller margin than earlier in the campaign.
In the most recent polling, growing support for Schwarzenegger among women was a major factor in helping him take the lead over Bustamante in the race to replace Davis.
Schwarzenegger's aides hope the actor's apology to unspecified sexual misconduct will lead voters to focus on his forthright admission, rather than on the conduct at issue.
One of his supporters, Leslie Casserly, a 46-year-old homemaker from Newport Beach, said Schwarzenegger "didn't really need to address" the "last-minute mudslinging."
"We're only five days from the election," she noted.
Her friend Judi Dalton, 60, a retired schoolteacher, added, "At least he's not trying to hide something, like Bill Clinton."